Filming a documentary is a challenge. Filming one on the flanks of the world’s highest mountain is even more challenging. But piecing together a film in which 16 of your protagonists have been killed is a challenge in a league of its own.
This was the task set before Australian director Jen Peedom, whose original concept for the film Sherpa was savagely altered by the events of April 18th, 2014. What she achieved in the wake of this tragedy is a powerful piece of cinema and a truly masterful example of the documentary genre.
Sherpa follows the exploits of its eponymous Nepali guides and their role in the commercial industry centred on Everest. Eschewing the standard adventure trope, the film acts as a human interest study which examines a culture that has classically been poorly understood. It documents the motives and the mythology, the pride and the pitfalls of the Sherpa people who have been instrumental in enabling wealthy foreigners to climb Everest.
Despite the pivotal role the Sherpa have played during the history of mountaineering in the region, their exploits have been undersold and undervalued. The film begins by examining the undercurrent of turmoil which has inexorably approached the surface since Tenzing Norgay’s landmark ascent with Ed Hillary.
Accompanied by stellar cinematography which highlights the treacherous beauty of the alpine environment, the internal conflict between Sherpa and Westerner is the focus of the first act of the film. Over time, a great deal of resentment has grown among the Sherpa over the disparity of conditions experienced by the two groups. This establishment of character and motive provides an important base which profoundly affects the viewer’s perception of the second act of the film – the tragedy itself.
It was impossible for Peedom and her crew to predict what would happen next, and it dramatically altered the tone and subject of the film. At 6:45am, a 14,000 ton serac collapsed in the Khumbu Icefall, causing the death of 16 Sherpa who were schlepping loads to Camp 2. This was captured in impromptu fashion by the crew who filmed the action as it occurred and engaged participants in snap interviews. It makes for some of the most brutal, gut-wrenching footage that I can recall in any film. The impact of these scenes is staggering.
What follows is further examination of the aftermath, including the tension at basecamp in the wake of the event. The film asks some very hard questions… What is the price of a life? Does anyone have the right to send people into such terrible risk? Who deserves the accolades for conquest on Everest?
Sherpa does not answer these questions for the viewer, but it certainly asks them loudly and clearly. The film does not take the mantle of assigning blame or asserting an opinion. Rather, it portrays the realities of the situation as well as the perspectives of all parties. The questions are left to rattle noisily inside the viewer’s mind, and the answers must come from there also.
Sherpa was by turns amazing to behold and difficult to watch. The word thrown around by many critics has been “arresting” and I wholeheartedly agree.
Sherpa is running in a limited released in selected Australian cinemas. Tickets have sold out at certain venues and it may be hard to see this film in the theatre. I’d recommend keeping an eye out for it when it is eventually distributed via DVD or online.
4.5 stars out of 5